Home > Uncategorized > February 24 – Major Taylor

February 24 – Major Taylor

I am an avid cyclist. I love to ride, and living in Texas is a blessing because the cycling season is relatively long. This means that for almost 9 straight months in a year, I spend my weekends in the saddle with my local bike shop, with my city’s bike association, or at fundraising bike rallies. During these rides, I see thousands of miles and thousands of faces… and yet, I can probably count on two hands the total number of Black cyclists I have seen.

This realization led me to do a little research on Black cyclists, which turned up one very surprising result: The first African-American to EVER win a world championship in any sport WAS A CYCLIST! Do you know who this man was?

Long before America had Lance Armstrong or Greg LeMond, there was Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, a Black cyclist who absolutely dominated his sport at the National and International level, despite having to overcome numerous racial barriers to get there.

Taylor was born in 1878 and grew up in rural Indiana. His father worked as a coachman for the wealthy Southard family, who eventually took Taylor in to be raised alongside their own son. When he was 12, the Southard’s gave Taylor his first bicycle, and he became such an expert trick rider that a local bike shop hired him to put on shows outside the store. Taylor performed in a soldier’s uniform, thus giving birth to his nickname, “Major.”

Major started competing in bicycle races in 1891 at the age of 13, and quickly made a name for himself as one of the fastest amateur riders around. Within 5 years, he turned professional and began registering for events ranging from short-distance track sprints to 6-day road races. He won more than half of the races he entered, often in record times, but was met with severe racial discrimination at almost every turn.

“They made things disagreeable for me by calling me bad names and trying to put me down, and they even threatened me with bodily harm if I did not turn back. I decided that if my time had come I might just as well die trying to keep ahead of the bunch of riders, so I jumped through the first opening and went out front, never to be overtaken.”

Entire cities, states and associations banned him from competing against Whites. Race fans booed him, showered him with ice water, threw nails in front of his wheels, and issued death threats. And fellow cyclists and competitors cheated shamelessly to put him out of contention. On one occasion, a cyclist tackled him on the track and strangled him. On a different occasion, another cyclist chased him around the track with knife in hand. Nevertheless, Taylor persisted, hoping to be an inspiration to other Blacks enduring similar treatment.

Taylor was treated terribly in the US. But overseas in Europe, especially in France, he was a celebrity and a hero. His athletic prowess and unbeatable speeds were all the more impressive because he was able to dominate in such a wide range and variety of races. In 1899, he won the world 1 mile track cycling championship, becoming the first African American to win a world title in any sport. Later that year, he set 7 world records in a span of six weeks. And in 1902 he went on a European Tour to challenge the world’s top cyclists, and won an astonishing 40 of 57 races.

Major Taylor competing in Paris in 1908

In 1910, at the age of 32 and finally exhausted from his battles with racism, Taylor decided to retire. Although he retired wealthy from his races, appearances and sponsorships, he would lose everything in the Stock Market Crash and from the self-publication of his auto-biography. Taylor died penniless in 1932 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago.

Today, Major Taylor is remembered and celebrated not only for his remarkable accomplishments in the world of cycling and sport, but also for his grace and class in the face of racial discrimination.

Thanks for reading,


“There are positively no mental, physical or moral attainments too lofty for the Negro to accomplish if granted a fair and equal opportunity.”—Marshall Taylor

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pallavi
    February 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

    I have enjoyed every post that you added on BHM. I love history and trivia and you’ve been awesome in feeding my brain those tidbits. I’ve learned so much through this.
    Thanks for sharing this and expanding my knowledge.

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